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Living as a Son Before Serving as a Pastor

Pastors receive more criticism than encouragement. We see our faults more than our gifts. We may hear the Accuser more than the Validator. Maybe more than anyone, we need to hear the welcoming voice of a smiling Father. We need to live as sons before servants. This post will show you how.

The 1982 movie Annie was originally a musical set in 1933 New York City during the Great Depression.

The story begins at the Hudson Street Orphanage, which is run by an oppressive caretaker, Miss Hannigan, who treats the children like servants.

One day, Grace Farrell, secretary of the billionaire philanthropist, Oliver Warbucks, comes by to pick up one child for a visit to his mansion as a guest.

Upon arrival at the residence, Ms. Ferrell asks Annie, “What would you like to do first?”

The orphan replies, “How about the floors?”

Annie didn’t understand. They had not brought her to the grand estate to labor as a servant, but to enjoy the blessings of luxury as a guest. They had not invited Annie to mop the floors, but to bask in grace.

Yet her orphan tendencies were so strong she could only imagine the servanthood that Miss Hannigan required.

The same thing can be true for us. It is possible for pastors who know the correct doctrines to live like spiritual orphans.

I know this because it has so often been true in my life.

Consider this simple diagnostic tool below. Where do you struggle with orphanhood? When honest, I circle many, if not most, of the numbers.

I want to help us move from spiritual orphanhood to full confidence in our spiritual sonship. This movement is not small—it’s huge!

Just listen to theologian J. I. Packer.

He writes,

Our first point about adoption is that it is the highest privilege that the gospel offers… That justification is the primary and fundamental blessing of the gospel is not in question. But this is not to say justification is the highest blessing. Adoption is higher, because of the richer relationship with God that it involves… In adoption, God takes us into his family and fellowship—he establishes us as his children and heirs. Closeness, affection and generosity are at the heart of the relationship. To be right with God the Judge is a great thing, but to be loved and cared for by God the Father is [even] greater.1

The highest privilege? Greater than justification? If this is true, it would serve us well to enter the fullness of this great gift. The shift from spiritual orphanhood to sonship takes place as we embrace the truth of Romans 8:15–18.

15 For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs — heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. 18 For I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed to us.

#1 - Adoption Validates

Psychologists tell us our relationship with an earthly father has a tremendous impact on how we view ourselves. If a mother’s role is to nurture her children, the role of the father is to validate them. If this validation doesn’t happen, whether because of absence, abuse, or neglect, we may spend our lives trying to prove ourselves, stuck in perpetual emotional adolescence.

We don’t need extensive psychological studies to tell us this. We know by experience. So much of our striving to achieve is simply the boy inside wanting a father to say, “You are my son, in whom I am well pleased.”

The power of a father’s affirmation is not a psychological invention, but is deeply rooted in the DNA of being created in the image of God. After all, at the inauguration of Jesus’ earthly ministry, this is exactly what the Father said to the Son.

“This is my son, in whom I am well pleased.”

Immediately after receiving these words, Jesus departed into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. Quoting Scripture from the Old Testament, Jesus responded, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God,” including every word of validation. The heavenly words from his Father received at his baptismal ordination proved the critical words, empowering Jesus to face criticism, persecution, and ultimately, death.

Let’s note the Father spoke affirmation at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. The Son would not have to earn the Father’s love through his obedience and sacrifice. The assertion of the Father’s love actually became the fuel for his obedience and sacrifice.

The same is true for us. In our adoption, the Father says, “You are my son, in whom I am well pleased.” Don’t miss the impact. These are not words following our obedience, but words preceding the entirety of our lives as children of the Father. They prepare us for the work of pastoral ministry and church leadership. Just like it did for Jesus, validation motivates and empowers faithfulness.

#2 - Adoption Relieves Fear

There are two primary fears we all face.

The first is the fear of rejection. If someone really knows me—the broken, ugly, prideful and insecure parts of me—how will they accept me? Fearing exposure, I hide like our first parents in the garden.

Let’s be honest. We all hide. We hide behind niceness. We hide behind success. We hide behind physical appearance. We hide behind shallow, surface conversation. We hide behind the social media image we create, project, and protect.

We hide behind our smiles. We also can hide behind toughness. We can hide through rebellion. We can hide by going to seminary. We hide at the elder board table and we can hide behind the pulpit.

But with our Father, we are safe.

And the security of his love empowers us to be safe for others. This creates the community God designed the church to be as we invite others into a place of safety where we can be real about our need for a Savior.

The second fear concerns outcomes. How will things “turn out?” Will it rain on the picnic? Will I get the job? Will the diagnosis come back benign? Will those visitors return? Will we make budget? The anxiety of lacking control of these outcomes is a symptom of the orphan spirit.

Yet Paul says the Father has not given us a spirit of fear. The Holy Spirit relieves our fears by convincing us of God’s love in our adoption. We are not alone; we have a strong Father who cares for us with perfect wisdom, goodness, and love. He will not let us go, no matter what.

In Romans 8, Paul asks, “Who can separate us from the love of Christ?” The resounding answer is nothing and no one, not even our continued sin. After all, it was for that moral failure that Jesus was condemned in our place, which is why Paul makes the audacious claim in Romans 8:1, “There is now, therefore, no more condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

The degree to which I refuse to believe that decree is the degree to which I will continue to struggle with the remnants of fleshly fear. Just like we overcome the fear of rejection through our acceptance as adopted sons and daughters, fears and anxieties of outcomes are also relieved as we trust our Abba is in control of all things and working every detail for our ultimate good.

When a Middle Eastern child in the first century learned his first words, he would either say Abba or Imma. Imma is a childlike expression paralleling Mamma. Likewise, Abba is translated Daddy or, even better, Dada. It is with this term of endearment and dependency that Jesus addressed the Father. It is the same word God invites us to use when addressing him as our Father. Think about it: What father doesn’t love being called Daddy?

A number of years ago, when my children were small, I drove our family from my in-laws’ house in Benton, Mississippi, to Greenwood on Highway 82, a long, flat, rural two-lane road. That night, I experienced one of the worst thunderstorms I’ve ever driven through.

Thinking the treacherous driving conditions must terrify my children, I looked in the rear-view mirror to discover they were sound asleep. How could they sleep through such a storm? They could rest because they trusted their daddy.

I wonder how it would feel to live our lives with the Father at the wheel. How would it change your life if you no longer had to carry the weight of the world, your church, or your family? Through experience, we know that giving up control of the wheel is easier said than done. Letting go of a need to control outcomes and letting our Abba be responsible is a huge step of faith.

It can feel frightening. It’s also freeing.

However, this freedom is not effortless. Since faith is not passive but active, trust is a conscious decision. Consciously trusting we are secure in his plan and in his hands sets us free from fear of outcomes.

#3 - Adoption Empowers Loyalty

You may have noticed in verse 17 that Paul employs the conditional clause if—“If we share in his sufferings.” Sharing in suffering includes fallen world discomforts, such as sickness and general hardship. It also includes suffering because of loyalty to Jesus.

As a matter of principle, whomever I allow to be the voice of approval or disapproval will receive my loyalty. I will adopt their values and seek to meet their expectations, whether that voice is a parent's or one’s peers. When I allow the voice of my heavenly Father to be that voice of approval, I will prioritize loyalty to Jesus over anyone else. I will be motivated and empowered to do his will, follow his ways, and heed his wisdom.

Although I understand Disney may phase out the Indiana Jones Stunt Show at Hollywood Studios in Orlando, the attraction is one of my favorites. There is one stunt where a vehicle explodes and a man catches on fire, fully engulfed in flames. After the stunt, the director reveals to the audience the actor was not burned because he was wearing a flame-retardant stunt suit.

For Abba’s child, Jesus’ righteousness is a flame-retardant covering that enables us to endure the heat of peer pressure, the arrows of criticism, and the blunt force of personal rejection as we share in the sufferings of Jesus. As we desire loyalty to Christ, we discover it’s been fueled by his loyalty to us—loyalty displayed at the cross by his not wearing a flame-retardant suit.

#4 - Adoption Transforms Prayer

Paul Miller says prayer is “one of the last great bastions of legalism.”2 Feelings of guilt, fear, and duty may be so strong when we think of prayer, he suggests we may need to unlearn everything we previously thought about prayer.3 After all, it is common to see prayer as an obligation or rule. With self-loathing, many of us would confess, “I know I should pray more,” a statement that reveals a deep orphan spirit. If that is you, pause here and read slowly.

The word “should” raises red flags regarding prayer and other aspects of the Christian life. Should is often used to express a sense of obligation, fear, or guilt. If prayer has become a should for you, it may be helpful to unlearn what you have known about prayer in your life.

A story may help.

A father once gave his son an inheritance in yearly installments, asking his son for a personal visit to receive the annual gift. Eventually, the Father altered the arrangement. Rather than distributing the funds in one lump sum each year, he provided it daily. The purpose wasn’t to punish his son or make it inconvenient to receive his inheritance. The father simply wanted to spend time with his boy. He cherished that one day so much he wanted to connect with him every day. The father deeply desired to meet with his son to encourage, support, and enjoy him. Every day.4

That story speaks to me, helping alter my view of the Father’s heart for me as his son. So, let that story soak in. Consider how the Father’s desire to encourage, support, and enjoy you can revolutionize your motive in prayer. Prayer is not our job. It is our privilege.

As Scotty Smith says, prayer merits us nothing but profits us much.5

Jesus knew this. His habit was to wake early and spend the first moments of the day alone with his Abba. But this morning time wasn’t a duty he rose to fulfill. It was a gift and a lifeline. Seeing God as our Abba transforms prayer from duty to delight, where prayer is not a law to fulfill but a means of grace to enjoy.

#5 - Adoption Fuels Hope

Romans 8:18 is one of the most hopeful passages in the Bible. Paul writes, “For I do not consider our present sufferings worthy to be compared to the glory that will be revealed in us.”

It is noteworthy that the verse is contextualized by Paul’s encouragement that, as recipients of spiritual adoption, we should no longer fear even though we suffer. We have a reason to hope, even if our present context appears hopeless.

I am not advocating a groundless optimism that declares everything is going to be okay in this life. It isn’t. It wasn’t for Jesus. Rather than blind optimism or cynical pessimism, Paul encourages biblical realism. It is true this world is broken, and it is true that there is hope in the gospel.

Both are true.

Yet the gospel trumps the brokenness because whatever we face in this temporary life, we know there is an eternity of joy and glory ahead—such glory that makes the suffering we must endure now insignificant in comparison.

I Felt Loved Once

Before her death in 1962, actress Marilyn Monroe gave an interview to a freelance reporter from the New York Times. With a troubled family, Marilyn grew up in foster care, being shuffled from one home to another. Knowing that background, the reporter asked about the times Marilyn felt most loved.

In my life, I felt loved once. When I was about seven or eight. The woman I was living with was putting on makeup. Smiling, she reached over and patted my cheeks with her rouge puff. She made me feel pretty. And for that moment, I felt loved.6

Can you relate to her experience? Do you remember feeling loved? Once? In a distant memory?

As pastors, we hear more criticism than encouragement. We see our faults more than our gifts. We may hear the Accuser more than the Validator.

Yet in the gospel, we have an adoptive Father who smiles upon us and has made us beautiful. Not by patting us with rouge, but by covering us in the perfect righteousness of his own Son, Jesus. By receiving that perfect covering, we may know ourselves to be the objects of Abba’s eternal affection.


  1. Was anything particularly challenging or helpful about this lesson?
  2. In what ways do you manifest orphan tendencies?
  3. Of the adoption implications, which one or two are most personally meaningful to you? 
  4. What would change in your life and ministry to enter more fully into your spiritual adoption?


1 J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press), 206-207.

2 Paul Miller, A Praying Life (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress), 32.

3 Ibid., 32.

4 I read this story long ago but could not locate the original source. If found, future editions of this text will include the citation. I wonder if this is why Jesus taught us to pray for our “daily” bread, knowing that God’s mercies (like the son’s inheritance) are new every morning.

5 Scotty Smith, Objects of His Affection (West Monroe, LA: Howard Publishing, 2001), 150.

6 Gary Smalley and John Trent, The Gift of the Blessing (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1993).

For more cross-tethered material for pastors, including my preaching course, The PPGR Preaching System, visit the links at the top of this page.